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Making Seed Aid Blossom

The quake in Haiti and floods in Pakistan highlight that the multimillion-dollar emergency seed aid industry is in need of a makeover.

The summer floods continue to leave Pakistanis struggling to survive.

Some areas are reporting 100 percent crop losses and tens of thousands of livestock deaths, making Pakistan’s agricultural future uncertain at best. Around 17 million acres of crops are under water or destroyed, and many of the animals that have survived have nothing to eat. With the wheat-planting season already under way, experts fear that crops for the next two years could be affected if farmers are unable to plant by this November.

The Pakistan Emergency Response Fund, set up by the United Nations, has thus far implemented 36 relief projects to the tune of $9.1 billion. This money has helped the estimated 20 million people affected by the disaster get access to food, clean water, health care and temporary shelters.

With 75 percent of the population affected by the flood dependent on agriculture, this type of assistance is crucial to protect victims’ livelihoods.

The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization has provided seed for 200,000 farming families and hopes to get funding to double that number; Britain has given $1.2 million in emergency seed money.

But, as with most humanitarian aid, it’s important that ag aid be given correctly: Just as indiscriminately sending medical supplies to a disaster-stricken area can compound the problem by taking up space, commanding relief worker attention and wasting resources, simply sending seeds overseas following an earthquake or flood doesn’t necessarily help farmers.

Louise Sperling, a principal researcher at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, and Shawn McGuire, a senior lecturer in natural resources at the University of East Anglia, have been working to make sure emergency seed interventions target the right problems. This year, they published “Persistent Myths about Emergency Seed Aid” in Food Policy to illuminate some of the common misperceptions of the practice and suggest ways to improve it.

They’ve been working on the ground to fix it, too: This summer, they completed a Seed Systems Security Assessment for Haiti that evaluated the seed relief that followed the Jan. 12 earthquake and suggested long-term strategies to improve the island’s seed security.

For many (including, seemingly, those who give it), seed aid is something of an enigma. “Food aid and food security dominate the immediate response field, and seed has been hidden under that, just because the food elephant is so big,” Sperling explains.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s a small or specialized practice, and it’s one that, if anything, is increasing in scope. The FAO alone managed 400 seed assistance projects between 2003 and 2005, and it developed seed aid plans for 48 countries in response to the 2008 food crisis.

Seed aid is any type of assistance that helps farmers maintain their livelihoods. It can take many forms, ranging from direct seed distribution (by far the most common approach) to donations of vouchers and cash to allow farmers to buy their own seeds through local markets. Often, seed aid projects provide impoverished farmers with modern seed varieties, achieving — it’s hoped — relief and development in one fell swoop.

“Seed aid has always been seen as relief-to-recovery in one go,” McGuire says. “It’s seen as the proverbial ‘teach a man to fish.’ A lot of people don’t realize how it could go wrong.”

The invisibility of seed aid has resulted in a poor understanding of the practice. In Sperling’s and McGuire’s eyes, there are five myths about seed aid that have undermined its effectiveness: 1) Whenever food aid is needed, seed aid is, too; 2) seed aid can do no harm; 3) disasters wipe out seed systems; 4) giving seed effectively is a straightforward logistical exercise; 5) and the best form of aid is improved, modern seed.

Their empirical work contradicts these assumptions. Perhaps the most dangerous of them, Sperling believes, is the perception that giving seed aid indiscriminately at the very least “can’t hurt.” Actually, it can: The wrong seed donations can have lasting effects on informal markets, seed variety and farmer autonomy.

Plus, as McGuire points out, sometimes the false hope inspired by promises of intervention can be more damaging than if farmers were left to fend for themselves after a disaster.

Some “emergency” interventions go on for years. Burundi, for example, has had seed aid 26 consecutive seasons, and Ethiopia has had seed aid more or less continuously since 1974.

It doesn’t help that the incentives to give emergency seed aid aren’t always benign. For humanitarian organizations, emergency aid is one way to get from project planning to implementation in weeks. For the agencies producing the seed, it pays to do emergency work, as many of them pay their overheads with emergency seed or use the opportunity to get new business — which did not go unnoticed when agriculture giant Monsanto announced plans to donate seed to Haiti in May 2010.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t hope for change.

“Everyone at the beginning said, ‘Oh my goodness, there’s always a seed problem. We have to bring in seed,’” says Sperling. “People are realizing that there are different types of problems.” She cites Zimbabwe, which in 2009 received $150 million of seed and fertilizer aid, as an example of this growing awareness. After reading the Seed Systems Security Assessment that she coordinated, its government realized that direct seed aid was addressing the wrong issue. The country has since changed its approach completely, giving farmers vouchers instead of seed, hoping to build markets rather than undermine them.

While there obviously isn’t time for a full-blown seed system assessment in the days immediately following a disaster, McGuire points out that there are often people already on the ground who know local needs and priorities — they just aren’t always included in the loop. “Local farmers and merchants know the situation in the field at a given location because it’s their business,” he says. “If you get the right tools and get the right people, you can quickly find out what is needed and scope out a slightly more refined response.”

One initiative launched by Concern Worldwide in Niger is doing just that. When the rains failed there last year, Concern consulted community members to find out how best to stave off a food crisis. Then, they allowed villagers to choose between a package of improved, drought-resistant seeds, fertilizer and a $37 cash installment or four $37 cash installments. Most people chose the seed-and-cash combination, and Concern is now testing a pilot project to distribute the money using cell phones.

“The idea of helping farmers get seed is a very enlightened one,” concludes Sperling. “It’s better than giving direct food; helping farmers produce their own food is very progressive. Moving forward, we need to make sure that in a stress situation the right problem is targeted, and normally that problem is access.”